My Lords, in the first instance, it is for parents to decide what is in the best interests of their children. The Government recognise the important role that grandparents may play in children’s lives and the stability they can provide in families when parents separate. We are keeping the matter under review.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The requirement for grandparents to apply for child arrangement orders is cumbersome, expensive and needs reforming. However, when grandparents need to go to court to maintain contact with their grandchildren, they typically have a relationship problem with one or both parents, rather than a legal problem. In Australia, where there is disharmony following divorce and separation, extended family members can access family relationship centres. Do the Government have plans to ensure that there is similar community-based help—sited, perhaps, in the family hubs slowly emerging across the country?
My Lords, the requirement for non-parents first to seek leave of the court in order to apply for a child arrangement order is regarded as an important filter mechanism, and was the subject of review by an independent panel in 2011 which came to the same conclusion. With regard to means of alternative dispute resolution, we are of course anxious to see mediation employed in the situation to which the noble Lord refers. He may recollect that at a recent Westminster Hall debate, on 2 May, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice indicated that she was carefully considering the current position and provision. In doing so, we will of course be happy to look at international experience.
The law does not require to be changed in order that grandparents can make an application in respect of an arrangement order for children. As regards legal aid, as the noble Lord is aware, that is currently the subject of a review within the Ministry of Justice.
My Lords, with some family experience, I am concerned that a Minister of Her Majesty’s Government was talking about presumptions for grandparents to have contact with their grandchildren. I would hope that that would not go any further, because presumptions are highly undesirable in the law, but it would be useful to review whether grandparents are finding it unusually difficult to get access to the court when they wish to be in touch with their grandchildren.
My Lords, with regard to access to the courts, the number of applications for child arrangement orders has generally been in the region of 2,000 over the period since 2011. They have varied slightly, and the number of applications has increased steadily from 2015 to the current year, where the figure is in excess of 2,000. I have certainly not referred to presumption, and various issues would of course arise if we were to consider such a move because, if you contemplate a presumption in favour of grandparents, you are in a sense intruding on the rights of the parent.
My Lords, is there really a justification for the two-stage process whereby grandparents have to apply for the right to make an application for a contact order and there is then a filtering system? Would it not be much easier for there to be a single application for a contact order with a filter system for non-parents built into that application, thus saving grandparents a great deal of time and trouble—all, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, points out, without the benefit of legal aid under the current arrangements, which require there to have been domestic violence or abuse?
My Lords, the matter of seeking permission, whether it be by grandparents or other non-parent applicants for an arrangement order in respect of children, was the subject of independent review by the Family Justice Review panel in 2011. In its final report, published in November 2011, it concluded that the matter of an application for permission should continue.
My Lords, we respect the right of grandparents to make an application for an arrangement order for children. Indeed, in the context of public law cases, local authorities are directed to consider placing children with relatives where it is not possible for the parents to continue with their care. It is open for grandparents to be appointed as special guardians in such situations.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees with me that grandparents often have a very special relationship in the life of any child, and I congratulate the Government on the recognition of grandparents’ rights, for example, in the crediting of national insurance contributions for grandparents who look after their grandchildren. May I also urge my noble and learned friend to encourage our honourable friend in the other place to reinforce the concerns expressed that denying rights of access for grandparents can often be like a living bereavement? If there is an opportunity to amend the Children Act to give grandparents more rights, I would very much welcome it.
My Lords, of course we understand the concern of grandparents with regard to child arrangements. But, as I indicated earlier, this is a difficult field. It is easy to talk of a presumption in favour of grandparents, but if you do that, you are, in effect, intruding on the rights of the parents with respect to the care of the children.